Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Speak the Language

Attaining immortality in the world of comics is like plucking an apple off a willing assistant's head. Whether using a batarang or an arrow, the creator must judge his distance, audience and objects correctly. Miscalculations result in over-the-top foolishness or the garishly mediocre. But when an artist/writer measures perfectly, taking aim, we see the apple cored. The assistant smiles, alive, and we clap, spellbound.

So it goes with Mike Grell's 1987 graphic novel Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters. Of the many comics DC created strictly for mature readers in the 80s (The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and Hawkworld), Grell's opus takes several unique risks, and stands as a gloriously pure work because of them.

Grell, who began his career in the 70s drawing Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes (and creating Warlord), reinvents the Justice League bowman with the street-level realism that made Frank Miller's Daredevil so entrancing. The setting is Seattle. Our star, the middle-aged Oliver Queen, hopes to settle down and start a family with crime-fighting girlfriend Dinah Lance (Black Canary). But, "It's in our blood," she tells him. "I wouldn't ask you to give it up... and you'd better not ask me."

Oliver acknowledges this while burying himself in nostalgia. His new home has faux medieval decor and a gigantic painting of Robin Hood. Dinah, a brunette, role-plays for him in the blonde wig and fishnets that, er, distracted costumed crooks in the Justice League's heyday. Post-coitus, they realize that continuing to fight evil (and satisfy adult readers in the 80s) means tackling the problems of urban decay: prostitution, drug addiction and serial murder.

Grell attacks this premise with every ounce of his formidable skill. Oliver and Dinah, as well as the killer's victims and assassin Shado, look back at us with startling soul. Portrait shots in chalk bring deeper emotional immediacy to the dialogue. Incredibly fine lines delineate Seattle by day and night, stitching up the plot for a showdown in the old-growth forest of Mount Ranier. The earthy coloring of Julia Lacquement enhances panels that tilt and cascade, speaking the language of violence.

And if The Longbow Hunters portrays anything more effectively than other comics of the era, it's violence. Here, Oliver doesn't use trick arrows that deliver gas or a knockout punch. His arrows stab people through the hand, chest and neck. A murderer leaves women gutted in alleys. Dinah, her hunt for villainy taking her to its very maw, is tied up and tortured by drug-runners. "You want a little of this while she's still got a face?" asks a man wielding a hunting knife to his partner, "After I'm done, she's gonna wanna make you puke."
Grell never tramples Green Arrow with mature themes- he elevates the character with narrative conviction. This is even more starkly true in hindsight, with the deeply exploitative 90s long gone. When published, The Longbow Hunters gave audiences what they craved- superheroes grounded like douglas firs in reality. Recently, Batman and his flashy technology have done the same for movie-goers in the age of terrorism and surveillance.

The easy argument here (though not one the new Arrow TV show will likely make) is that a man dressed as Robin Hood killing criminals seems more real than one dressed as a bat pummeling them. But of course Green Arrow's reinvention didn't stick. Brad Meltzer, Phil Hester and other creators have since returned him to more colorful ranks alongside Superman and Wonder Woman. For this I'm thankful. Pierced throats get old much faster than giant starfish.

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